[6:1-7]. Question of assistance: beginning of the decline of Peter and the Twelve.
Overview. After reading the first five chapters, we can imagine a continuation of the triumphal march of Peter and the Twelve. The murmur which is mentioned at the beginning of Chap. 6, instead, looks like those little pieces of snow that begin to roll and form avalanches. From that moment on, in fact, Peter would appear increasingly inadequate and so would pass from dragger to dragged. He would no longer be able, in short, to direct the new phase that was being prepared and so, after a period in which he would trudge and let others carry on the “strategic plan of God”, he would disappear completely from the story told in Acts. Peter’s decline does not coincide with the emergence of Paul, though Luke shows the preparation of the context suitable for the work of Paul, which would then be the instrument chosen to bring to completion the definition of the new phase of God’s work in the world.
For the people of the apostolic time period, it was not easy to realise how the various episodes were linked by a precise logic, so sometimes they could have the impression that the work of God was drifting. Here, then, lies the singularity and value of the story of Luke, who was brought to understand that thread that the Holy Spirit has never lost and that connects seemingly separate episodes.
The Seven “table servants”. As the number of believers grew, and as time passed, the selling of everything and being together began to be more difficult to manage. Thus, a bad atmosphere emerged among those of Greek (Hellenistic) language, who were disadvantaged in dealing with the community leaders, comprised mainly of Hebrew speakers. The apostles tried to solve the problem with the election of seven “table servants” and this was taken as a model by Christianity, but Luke subtly shows the failure of this strategy, and this will be better understood later.
As in the case of Matthias (1:15-26), the election of the seven “table servants” is not decided authoritarianly by the apostles, but involving the whole community (vv. 5-6). While the apostles were referred to as the “Twelve” (Acts 6:2; Jn 20:24; 1Cor 15:15), these “table servants” are called the “Seven” (Acts 21:8). “Table servants” is the literal translation and also those who managed deposits and loans of money were called “tables”, as you can see when Jesus «threw away the tables of those who exchanged money» (Mk 11:15, TILC). This harmonises much better with the context and suggests “the Seven” as “common money managers”, rather than “waiters”.
From this episode some draw the suggestion for a type of “hierarchical order”, with the apostles at the top, then the deacons and then the common believers. Of course, this scheme has its own logic, but in the context of the Acts the designation of the Twelve and the Seven suggests groups formed for a specific purpose, whose members have therefore a restricted authority to the received assignment. It will be Luke’s own story, however, that’ll dispel any hierarchical idea of the Church whom, if faithful, rather than by human guides, is directed by the Holy Spirit, who now uses the one and now the other.
Among these Seven, only for the first two is then defined a role in the unfolding of the story: Stephen and Philip. Stephen is not only the first on the list, but he is also the only one to be explicitly praised as a «man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit» (v. 5): coincidentally, he can easily be framed as the forerunner of Paul (as we shall see below).
For only one of them (Nicolaus) we are told that he came from Antioch and that he was a convert from paganism (proselyte): in Antioch, as it happens, would then arise the church of those consisting predominantly of believers from paganism, whom Paul would help to instruct (Acts 11:25-26) and from where he would go on his missionary tours (Acts 13:2; 15:35; 18:22). The one who begins to read a story does not know the end, but the one who writes it has an end before even taking up the pen! And Luke is no exception.
The wisdom of the Twelve and the unpredictability of God. As organisational problems emerged, the Twelve seemed to make the right decisions: since they had thus far evangelised very effectively, it seemed clear that they should continue in that task, without being distracted by those problems of providing assistance that also others could solve. The way forward is so sensible to be taken as a model by the generality of the Churches… Yet God would have done the opposite of what the Twelve had predicted! For the twelve said, «Brothers, seek to find among you seven men […] to whom we will entrust this charge. As for us, we will continue to dedicate ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the Word» (vv. 3-4). Soon after, however, it will be just two of those “servants at the tables” to take charge of a new type of preaching (Stephen) and in new places (Philip).
God remains God, therefore his thoughts are higher than ours «as the heavens are high above the earth» (Isa 55:9): we know this well, but we tend to forget it. Between the intentions of the Twelve and subsequent developments, in short, there is such a stark contrast from which the lesson should be drawn that not even his most faithful servants can cage God!
Everything was going great, then Stephen got too zealous? The passage we are considering (6:1-7) ends by describing an excellent situation of the Church, in fact it «multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith». In such a situation, Stephen’s trespassing outside the role assigned to him and his provoking the first generalised persecution easily appeared as a great trouble, even if caused by the best intentions. Stephen paid for his initiative by becoming the first martyr and it took many years (and a Luke enlightened by the Spirit) to better understand the value of what he had done, which emerged thanks to the very esteemed portrait painted by Luke immediately below.
[6:8-15]. First part of the conflict between Stephen and the unbelieving Jews.
We have seen that Luke had initially presented Stephen as «a man full of faith and of the Holy Spirit» (v. 5); now he continues the praise by writing that «Stephen, full of grace and power, was doing great wonders and signs among the people» (v. 8), with the unbelieving Jews who «could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking» (v. 10). God gave a great sign of His approval to Stephen, because when he was brought before the Sanhedrin to be judged, «gazing at him, all who sat in the council saw that his face was like the face of an angel» (v. 15).
There is now another tragic “switching of meaning” that sometimes is at work, which is to take to be true the false accusations made against Stephen. We, in fact, like those false witnesses who rose up against Stephen (vv. 13-14), affirm that, for those who had believed in Jesus, the Temple was now to be avoided and the customs established by Moses were no longer valid! Those who support this, often do so by quoting some passages from the Letter to the Hebrews, on which we cannot dwell here, reiterating, however, that throughout the book of Acts, we see the description of a Church that is fully compatible with its remaining within Judaism. On the Letter to the Hebrews, we will open up Link N. 6 in the final pages, in which we will limit ourselves to asking some rhetorical questions, with the hope of arriving sooner or later at addressing this Letter in a separate boo